Internet mailing lists aren’t as flashy as Web discussion groups or as visible as Usenet newsgroups, but they can be far more useful.
Reading and responding to messages in these e-mail discussion groups is considerably faster than working through the Web. And because they usually cover subject matter that’s narrower in focus than Usenet discussion groups, chances are greater that any given message will be relevant to your needs.
“Mailing lists offer the best ‘signal-to-noise ratio’ [percentage of high-quality information] of any type of forum on the Internet,” says Scott Southwick, creator of the Web site Liszt, a searchable directory of mailing lists.
Mailing lists are sometimes referred to as “listservs,” after the most popular software for administering them. But this is actually inaccurate since other software may be used besides Listserv. Majordomo and ListProc are two of more than 20 other choices.
Types of Internet Mailing Lists
There are many different kinds of lists. Some are one-way rather than two-way. With one-way lists, also called announcement lists, messages move from publisher to subscribers without back-and-forth communication. They’re commonly used for newsletters and product announcements.
With two-way mailing lists, also called discussion or talk lists, any message you write is first sent to a central address from which it’s distributed, or “reflected,” to everyone who has subscribed to the list.
Some lists are public; others are private. Anybody can join a public or open list. Private lists, also called closed or restricted lists, might be set up for product beta testers or for working members of a specific profession.
With moderated lists, messages go first to a moderator who determines if the message is relevant before allowing its distribution. With unmoderated lists, messages are immediately sent to all subscribers. Moderated lists carry less off-topic noise than unmoderated lists though they’re less spontaneous.
With individualized lists, you receive as many messages as are sent out. With digest lists, you receive a file each day or week that includes the individual messages that subscribers have sent. Digest lists are easier for subscribers to manage-you won’t get overwhelmed by messages-but they make it more difficult to respond quickly to the messages of other individuals.
Some Negative Aspects of Lists
One negative about mailing lists is that they’re more difficult to join than Web or Usenet discussion groups. The most common mistake people make is sending a subscribe (or unsubscribe) request to the mailing list’s address rather than the administrator’s address. This causes everybody to see the request and is just unwanted noise.
If you want to subscribe, unsubscribe, put your subscription on hold, or carry out other functions, the correct procedure is to send e-mail to the mailing list administrator (often by using very specific commands). When you subscribe to a list, you’ll receive instructions about the specific procedures to use.
Sometimes mailing list participants also send messages that they intended for only one person to all the subscribers of the list. If the message is personal, this can be embarrassing.
Another negative is that mailing lists can cause your mailbox to get overloaded with incoming e-mail not directed to you personally. Fortunately most e-mail programs today let you filter incoming e-mail. You can direct the program to automatically route all e-mail from a particular mailing list into a particular folder. This separates it from more urgent personal e-mail, letting you peruse it at your convenience.
As with Usenet and the Web, don’t forget that proverbial grain of salt. Mailing list subscribers aren’t all experts. Confirm surprising information with other sources if you intend to use it for critical purposes.
If you’re interested in creating your own mailing list, some Internet service providers will offer help for a small fee. If yours doesn’t, another option is to hook up with a Web site that provides mailing-list services. Examples include ListBot, Lyris.Net, and Esosoft.
Other Web sites where you can learn more about mailing lists include Tile.Net, List of Lists, E-mail Discussion Groups, and Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
Looking for a List
on a Specific Topic? Try Liszt
Perhaps you want to find an Internet mailing list that deals with the subject of your last book. Or you’re a focused publisher, and would like to dialogue with others interested in the issues addressed by your whole line of books. Here’s a resource for you to try.
Liszt is a roster of more than 90,000 different mailing lists. Because mailing lists originated in the academic community, predating both the Web and Usenet, many deal with academic and research topics. But you can still find a bountiful selection of lists about other topics, from music and sports to business and the Internet itself. Any given mailing list can have from less than 10 to many thousands of subscribers, with varying levels of expertise and interest in the list topic.
For other Web resources on lists, see the end of the accompanying article.